Threat To Human Civilization
By Ross Gelbspan
11 August, 2004
change is not just another issue. It is the overriding threat facing
human civilization in the twenty-first century, and so far our institutions
are doing dangerously little to address it. Americans in particular
are still in denial, thanks largely to the efforts of the fossil-fuel
industry and its allies in the Bush Administration. But the nation's
biggest environmental organizations and opposition politicians have
also displayed a disturbing lack of leadership on this crucial challenge.
They are by no means
the only roadblocks to meaningful action on climate change. In addition
to the Bush Administration and the fossil-fuel lobby, the failure of
the press to cover the climate crisis has left the United States ten
years behind the rest of the world in addressing this issue. Given this
background, the failure of environmentalists to fill the informational
and political vacuum is especially distressing.
Over the past decade, the arguments against the reality of climate change
by the carbon lobby have been as inconsistent as the weather itself.
During the early years of the 1990s, the fossil-fuel lobby insisted
that global warming was not happening. In the face of incontrovertible
findings by the scientific community, the industry then conceded that
climate change is happening but is so inconsequential as to be negligible.
When new findings indicated that the warming is indeed significant,
the spokesmen for the coal and oil industries then put forth the argument
that global warming is good for us.
But the central
argument that big coal and big oil have spent millions of dollars to
amplify over the past decade is that the warming is a natural phenomenon
on which human beings have little or no impact. That argument has been
repeatedly discredited by the world's leading climate scientists. Under
the auspices of the United Nations, more than 2,000 scientists from
100 countries have participated over the past fifteen years in what
is most likely the largest, most rigorously peer-reviewed scientific
collaboration in history. In 1995 the UN-sponsored panel found a "discernible
human influence" on the planet's warming climate. The scientists
subsequently concluded that to stabilize our climate requires humanity
to cut its use of coal and oil by 70 percent in a very short time.
The Kyoto Protocol,
by contrast, calls for industrial countries to cut aggregate emissions
by just 5.2 percent by 2012. That is a woefully inadequate response;
as British Prime Minister Tony Blair admitted in 2002, "Even if
we deliver on Kyoto, it will at best mean a reduction of one percent
in global emissions.... In truth, Kyoto is not radical enough."
current low goals of the Protocol are championed by many Americans who
should know better, including leading Democrats like John Kerry and
virtually every national environmental organization. Confronted by the
steel wall of resistance of the fossil-fuel lobby and their political
allies, most climate activists and sympathetic politicians have retreated
into approaches that are dismally inadequate to the magnitude of the
Around the country,
advocates are working to get people to drive less, turn down their thermostats
and reduce their energy use. Unfortunately, while many environmental
problems are susceptible to lifestyle changes, climate change is not
one of them.
Several of the country's leading national environmental groups are promoting
limits for future atmospheric carbon levels that are the best they think
they can negotiate. But while those limits may be politically realistic,
they would likely be environmentally catastrophic. Most advocates, moreover,
are relying on goals and mechanisms that were proposed about a decade
ago, before the true urgency of the climate crisis became apparent.
In 2000, researchers at the Hadley Center, Britain's main climate research
institute, found that the climate will change 50 percent more quickly
than was previously assumed. Their projections show that many of the
world's forests will begin to turn from sinks (vegetation that absorbs
carbon dioxide) to sources (which release it)--dying off and emitting
carbon--by about 2050. In 1998 a team of researchers reported in the
journal Nature that unless the world is getting half its energy from
noncarbon sources by 2018, we will see an inevitable doubling--and possible
tripling--of atmospheric carbon levels later in this century.
Virtually all the
approaches by activists in the United States, moreover, are domestic
in nature. They ignore both the world's developing countries and, equally
important from the standpoint of national security, the oil-producing
nations of the Middle East. Ultimately, even if the United States, Europe,
Canada, Australia and Japan were to cut emissions dramatically, those
cuts would be overwhelmed by the coming increase of carbon from India,
China, Mexico, Nigeria and all the other developing countries struggling
to stay ahead of poverty.
Many alternative approaches rely on market-based solutions because their
proponents believe that, in an age of market fundamentalism, no other
approach can gain political traction. Unfortunately, nature's laws are
not about supply and demand; they are about limits, thresholds and surprises.
The progress of the Dow does not seem to influence the increasing rate
of melting of the Greenland ice sheet; the collapse of the ecosystems
of the North Sea will not be arrested by an upswing in consumer confidence.
Many groups justify
the minimalist goals of making people more energy efficient as the first
phase in building a political base for more aggressive action. In the
past, that pattern has been successful in developing various movements.
In the case of climate change, however, nature's timetable is very different
from that of political organizers. Unfortunately, the signals from the
planet tell us we do not have the luxury of waiting another generation
to allow for the orderly maturation of a movement.
Finally, the environmental
establishment insists on casting the climate crisis as an environmental
problem. But climate change is no longer the exclusive franchise of
the environmental movement. Any successful movement must include horizontal
alliances with groups involved in international relief and development,
campaign finance reform, public health, corporate accountability, labor,
human rights and environmental justice. The real dimensions of climate
change directly affect the agendas of a wide spectrum of activist organizations.
movement has proved it cannot accomplish large-scale change by itself.
Despite occasional spasms of cooperation, the major environmental groups
have been unwilling to join together around a unified climate agenda,
pool resources and mobilize a united campaign on the climate. Even as
the major funders of climate and energy-oriented groups hold summit
meetings in search of a common vision, they shy away from the most obvious
of imperatives: using their combined influence and outreach to focus
attention--and demand action--on the climate crisis. As the major national
groups insist on promoting exclusive agendas and protecting carefully
defined turfs (in the process, squandering both talent and donor dollars
on internecine fighting), the climate movement is spinning its wheels.
Take the critical
issue of climate stabilization--the level at which the world agrees
to cap the buildup of carbon concentrations in the atmosphere. The major
national environmental groups focusing on climate--groups like the Natural
Resources Defense Council, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the
WWF (World Wildlife Fund)--have agreed to accept what they see as a
politically feasible target of 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide.
While the 450 goal may be politically realistic, it would likely be
environmentally catastrophic. With carbon levels having risen by only
90 parts per million (from their pre-industrial level of 280 ppm to
more than 370 ppm today), glaciers are now melting into puddles, sea
levels are rising, violent weather is increasing and the timing of the
seasons has changed--all from a 1-degree Fahrenheit rise in the past
century. Carbon concentrations of 450 ppm will most likely result in
a deeply fractured and chaotic world.
The major national
environmental groups, moreover, are trapped in a Beltway mentality that
measures progress in small, incremental victories. They are operating
in a Washington environment that is at best indifferent and at worst
actively antagonistic. And too often these organizations are at the
mercy of fickle funders whose agendas range from protecting wetlands
to keeping disposable diapers out of landfills.
lobby has hijacked America's energy and climate policies. One appropriate
response might involve environmental leaders' forging a coalition of
corporate and financial institutions of equivalent force and influence
to counteract the carbon industry's stranglehold on Congress and the
The vast majority of climate groups shun confrontation and work instead
to get people to reduce their personal energy footprints. That can certainly
help spread awareness of the issue. But by persuading concerned citizens
to cut back on their personal energy use, these groups are promoting
the implicit message that climate change can be solved by individual
resolve. It cannot. Moreover, this message blames the victim: People
are made to feel guilty if they own a gas guzzler or live in a poorly
insulated home. In fact, people should be outraged that the government
does not require automakers to sell cars that run on clean fuels, that
building codes do not reduce heating and cooling energy requirements
by 70 percent and that government energy policies do not mandate decentralized,
home-based or regional sources of clean electricity.
What many groups
offer their followers instead is the consolation of a personal sense
of righteousness that comes from living one's life a bit more frugally.
That feeling of righteousness, coincidentally, is largely reserved for
wealthier people who can afford to exercise some control over their
housing and transportation expenditures. Many poorer people--who cannot
afford to trade in their 1990 gas guzzlers for shiny new Toyota Priuses--are
deprived of the chance to enjoy the same sense of righteousness, illusory
though it may be.
Given the lock on
Congress and the White House by the carbon lobby, there is no way the
US government will pursue a rapid global energy transition without a
massive uprising of popular will. Environmentalists should therefore
be forging alliances with other activists who focus on international
development, campaign finance reform, corporate accountability, public
health, labor, environmental justice and human rights--not to mention
with communities of faith--to mobilize a broad, inclusive constituency
around the issue.
The tragedy underlying
the failure of the environmental community lies in the fact that so
many talented, dedicated and underpaid people are putting their lives
on the line in ways that will make little difference to the climate
crisis. They are outspoken in their despair about what is happening
to the planet. They are candid about their acceptance of a self-defeating
political realism that requires relentless accommodation. What is missing
is an expression of the rage they all feel.
The United States
did not withdraw from Vietnam because a few individuals moved to Canada
or Sweden to avoid military service or because the leaders of the antiwar
movement negotiated a reduction of the bombing runs over Vietnam. The
United States left Vietnam because a sustained uprising of popular will
forced one President of the United States to drop his plans for re-election
and pressured his successor to scramble until he had achieved something
he could call "peace with honor."
to the climate movement may be seen as too harsh until one considers
the most fundamental fact about the climate crisis: Activists compromise.
Nature does not.
This article was adapted by Mark Hertsgaard (The Nation's environment
correspondent) from Ross Gelbspan's just-published Boiling Point, which
criticizes not just the environmental movement but also the media; examines
the corruption of US policies; and offers global strategies to combat
climate change. It is reprinted by arrangement with Basic Books, a member
of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2004 by Ross Gelbspan.
Ross Gelbspan, author
of The Heat Is On: The Climate Crisis, the Cover-Up, the Prescription
(Perseus) and the just-published Boiling Point (Basic) maintains the